Last fall, it seemed as if justice was finally in the works for tenants in Sunset Park. In August, after organizing a year-long rent strike with three buildings on their block, residents finally had their day in court. At the time, Judge Sylvia Hinds-Radix seemed sympathetic, noting, “This building is crying out for a receiver.” However, the receiver — who’s charged with the task of caring for the buildings while they undergo the foreclosure process — didn’t appear until January 14th.
In the meantime, many of the unlivable conditions that led the tenants to strike have persisted, and they’re not sure they’ll stop the rent strike under the receiver’s management. They want to see the problems, which range from bugs to leaks to asbestos contamination, fixed — and they’re worried about handing over their money but not seeing any changes.
Orazio Petito, the slumlord who owns the apartment buildings at 553, 545, and 557 46th Street, packed the basements of his properties with construction debris and trash, which quickly became home to mice, fleas and bedbugs. Sara Lopez, one of the tenants who organized the rent strike, told us, “Any time it rains, the water runs from the roof to the first floor. The first floor floods. I get mice, I get roaches. [Petito] didn’t care. I told him, ‘When you clean the basement, I’ll pay the rent.'”
As the owner, Petito was responsible for clean-up and repairs (although that’s now the receiver’s job). When he did nothing about the piles of trash in the basements, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) stepped in. According to Lopez, workers from HPD came last November and removed seven dumpsters full of filth from her basement alone. But HPD hasn’t been back to do anything about the pests or the flooding. Kerri White, director of organizing and policy at the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, says these problems aren’t HPD’s responsibility: “It’s a bad situation, but it’s not unheard of. We need [HPD] to help protect the housing, but we can’t rely on them only to make repairs because they don’t have the resources, nor should they. It’s the responsibility of the owner or the receiver to maintain the building.”
Even after the garbage was removed, problems continued. Residents, concerned that insulation they could see dangling from pipes in the basement ceilings might contain asbestos, called for material to be tested. Sure enough, the tests confirmed their fears — all three of the basements were contaminated with asbestos. The city planned to do their own asbestos inspection, but Lopez claims that, when Petito found out, he sent an employee to keep out anyone who didn’t arrive carrying a court order, further stalling the clean-up. “They say it affects your health twenty years after,” Lopez worried. “There are still people living in the basement, with two newborns and small children.” To her knowledge, the asbestos is still there.
It seems outrageous that the residences have sat neglected for so long, even after a judge authorized a receiver, but the road to receivership has been complicated. White explained that the foreclosure has bogged down progress. “The court process for foreclosure is slow and the courts are really backed up,” she said. “The banks have started dumping the mortgages on private groups who either want to purchase them because they want to be long-term owners, or they think they can foreclose, flip, and then sell at a higher amount.” The ongoing foreclosure also means that, for now, Petito still owns the apartment buildings. The receiver appointment means he’s no longer allowed to collect rent, although some tenants say it hasn’t stopped him from trying.
But even with a receiver now in place, repairs haven’t started. The receiver relies on rent money to fund the necessary work, and tenants aren’t sure they want to pay. Lopez explained, “They want us to pay back rent, but I don’t think we should pay because we’ve been suffering. The receiver says they want to use the back rent to fix the building. Until they start fixing, I’m not going to believe it. We’ve been through that so many times.”
Making matters even more complicated is that Seryl LLC., the company that purchased the mortgage for the three buildings, appears to be a ghost corporation. Google searches don’t turn up a website or phone number, and although White has been trying to help the Sunset Park tenants track down Seryl’s owners, she hasn’t had much success. She discovered that one principal in the group was a real estate company in Baltimore, but when she called, the company said they had no involvement with the Brooklyn buildings. Another person she contacted said he was just an investor and didn’t know what was happening with the apartments.
White still hopes she can make contact, so that she, Lopez, and the other tenants can discover whether Seryl intends to restore the buildings or resell them after the foreclosure is complete. “The tenants have rights and are planning to exert them. They should be made aware of that,” she said.